Monday, 14 July 2014

UK economics curriculum: an open reply to the QAA

To: The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education
Southgate House
Southgate Street
GL1 1UB 

15th July 2014 (revised 31 July)

Thank you for the opportunity to suggest further changes to the QAA subject benchmark statement in economics (SBSE). I think the draft needs significant further work for four reasons: repetition; insufficient critical and open thinking; insufficient pluralism; and a need to re-prioritise to reflect employer surveys.

The SBSE could merge sections 4. 'subject knowledge and understanding' and 5. 'subject specific skills and other skills'. Finance and accounting (QAA, 2007) have a single section 3. 'subject specific knowledge and skills'.

There is wording in the both finance and accounting that emphasises critical and open thinking: 'a capacity for the critical evaluation of arguments and evidence'; 'the ability to analyse... unstructured problems' as well as an emphasis on presentation, communication and information technology skills. The SBSE could use similar wording.

The main thrust of the document is 'to abstract and simplify' (2.5) and 'the study of factors that influence income, wealth and well-being'. It could instead emphasise 'the empirical grounding of the subject; being question motivated not tool motivated; and address issues such as growth, distribution and the environment' (personal notes from QAA meeting). The need to discuss the purpose of economics was made in the original INET curriculum proposal (Skidelsky, 2011). For example, topics that come up with student groups include climate change, inequality, unemployment, banking, power, gender, profit retention and tax avoidance.

A lack of theoretical pluralism is apparent in section 4.1 'a coherent core of economic principles' and 5.4 'key concepts'. The SBSE could use similar wording to the finance statement section 2: 'study pursued from a variety of perspectives, including but not restricted to, the behavioural, ethical, economic, sustainable and statistical/mathematical'.

Please note my surprise that finance and employment are considered to be 'static analyses'.

In my view, sections 2.5, 4.3, 5.4, 5.6 and 7 confuse the priorities given in the employer surveys:

The Economics Network Survey of 2012 places 'communication of economic ideas' and 'analysis of economic, business and social issues' ahead of 'abstraction' and lists 'social costs and benefits' as the most important subject-specific knowledge.

The SBE Survey of 2013 prioritised data manipulation, money and banking, financial economics, economic history, cost-benefit analysis, competition, behavioural economics, history of economic thought and financial history. These were ahead of advanced mathematics and mathematical packages. These priorities are either missing, or inconsistent, in these overlapping sections.

Where the committee have proposed changes I support these: the new bullet on 'historic and policy contexts in which specific economic analysis is applied'; engagement with finance, ethics, philosophy and international relations; a new bullet to communicate with 'non-specialists/non-economists'; brief mention of case studies; removal of the word 'scarcity' and inclusion of the words 'phenomena', sectors' and the 'pluralist perspectives/interdisciplinary synthesis' mentioned earlier.

Can you note my disappointment that it took so long to circulate the draft after the 18th March committee: as a result, even these minor revisions will not be available for the 2014-15 academic year.

Thank you for agreeing to widen the consultation to 'gather a full range of perspectives'. I hope that this will include academic groups (WINIR, PKSG, AHE and so on) as well as student groups (PCES, Rethinking Economics, CSEP, GURWES and so on) and other employers (in finance, consultancy and non-profit).

With best regards,
Neil Lancastle

Summary of comments from other committee members
1.  The statement needs rewriting to show how economics has changed since the crisis, to encourage a more pluralist approach to teaching, and to encourage critical inquiry by students.
2.  The statement needs to include economic and financial history, behavioural economics, real world case studies, banking, and the skills and topics prioritised by employers.

Economics Network. (2012). Economics Graduates’ Skills and Employability.
SBE Survey. (2013). Teaching Economics after the Crisis: The Results of the Society of Business Economists’ Members’ Survey of January 2013. Available from Society of Business Economists.
QAA. (2007). Finance.
QAA (2007). Accounting
Skidelsky, R. et al. (2011). Three year economics undergraduate curriculum

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